Consumer credit card debt in the United States has been rising in recent years, although as the labor markets improve, defaults on such cards have fallen to multi-decade lows.

One important slice of the overall credit card market in the U.S. involves those issued specifically by credit unions. Data indicates that not only are more and more people acquiring credit cards from credit unions, but that the default and delinquency rates were lower for credit cards issued by credit unions than those offered by banks.

According to data analyzed by Callahan & Associates for Credit Union Journal, credit union-issued credit cards had a net charge-off rate of 1.84% as of Sept. 30, 2014, while the delinquency rate for such cards was 0.89% as of that date. In contrast, bank-issued credit card net charge-offs were 3.18% as of September 30, 2014, while their delinquency rate was at 1.10%.

"However, it is important to note that credit unions must report a loan as delinquent when it is 60 days past-due, whereas banks can wait until it is 90 days past-due," Callahan & Associates noted.

Further, Callahan indicated, the amount of credit card balances outstanding at credit unions has risen from $33.8 billion as of Sept. 30, 2009 to $44.5 billion as of Sept. 30, 2014. Plus, there were a total of 16.3 million credit union credit cards with outstanding balances as of Sept. 30, 2014.

Also, CUNA/NCUA reported that as of June 2014, well more than half (56.9%) of all credit unions offered credit cards—up from 32% in 1992.

But, CUNA cautioned, credit card growth rates at credit unions are lower than total loan growth rates at credit unions. Thus, growth rates are "healthy, but manageable."

CUNA/NCUA data also revealed that the average interest rate charged to credit union-issued cards was 9.63% for June 2014 (in comparison, annual interest rates on bank-issued credit cards can be sometimes as much as 21% or even higher, depending on specific issuer). According to, the average credit card annual interest rate for Dec. 3, 2014, was 13.02% for fixed-rate cards and 15.70% for variable rate cards.

CUNA further noted that credit union-issued credit cards feature lower annual fees and lower maximum late fees than their bank product counterparts.

Brian Scott, vice president of sales for The Members Group (TMG), a company that processes credit card payments for credit unions, told Credit Union Journal that credit unions are not-for-profit, member-owned cooperatives that typically price loans, and especially credit card loans, lower and more competitively than most banks would.

"This is largely because credit unions look to serve their members, not shareholders," he said. "In addition, however, credit unions tend to be more risk-averse and typically don't underwrite more risky credit card loans. This may have an impact on the overall 'lower rate' picture."

Historically, banks have been more generous with providing credit cards to those with lower credit scores, such as those predominantly credit card-oriented institutions like Capital One, noted Dennis Dollar, an Alabama-based credit union consultant.

"But credit unions have historically had better credit card rates and terms—much better, in fact, and this has helped more members be able to keep their credit cards long-term because they don't get behind with higher rates, fees and terms," Dollar added. "The performance of credit card portfolios at most credit unions is very strong."

Finally, Jon Sarvis, chief executive of TMG Financial Services, a sister company to The Members Group and a credit card agent-issuer partnered with credit unions across the U.S., commented that credit unions, in general, offer more "consumer-friendly" products by nature of their mission and values.

"When it comes to credit cards, many credit unions are also governed by their state's laws and statues regulating rates and fees," Sarvis added. "Major card issuers will choose to incorporate operations in states with higher interest rate and fee limits. With fewer restrictions on what businesses can charge consumers for credit, these states offer an ideal climate for higher-rate credit products."

For the broader credit card landscape (comprising loans issued by commercial banks, credit unions and other financial institutions), CardHub, a credit-card comparison website, reported that for the third quarter of 2014, the rate of charge-offs on credit cards amounted to 2.89%, the lowest such rate in almost three decades (since 1985).

CardHub stated that the latest data reveals both good and bad news regarding consumer debt.

"Consumer credit card debt statistics support the notion of a rapidly improving economy, which is further evidenced by the fact that an impressive 321,000 jobs were added in November while the unemployment rate hovers at 5.8%," CardHub stated.

The low charge-off rate suggests that consumers now have the "financial wherewithal to remain current on their obligations."

However, the total net debt load continues to increase, suggesting that the public has learned little about debt management since the global financial meltdown of 2007-2008.

In the third quarter of 2014 alone, US consumers assumed an additional $15.9 billion in new credit card debt - a 35% increase from the year-ago quarter. That $15.9 billion figure comprised about $9.9 billion in outstanding credit card debt and another $6 billion in credit card charge-offs.

CardHub projects that new credit card debt will exceed $60 billion by the end of this year, representing at least a 55% jump from calendar 2013.

"The prodigious amount of debt that we continue to rack up indicates that consumer attitudes toward money have not improved since the Great Recession," CardHub commented. "The consumer debt picture has now worsened on a year-over-year basis for four straight quarters."

Breaking down the data further, the credit card balance for the average household now totals $6,870. "We expect this figure to reach $7,126 by the end of the year, bringing us roughly $1,200 away from a tipping point at which minimum payments will become unsustainable and delinquencies will skyrocket," CardHub warned.

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